History is written in more than words. Our story is inscribed in sculpture, pictures, and the articles we leave behind. It is a record of how people thought and what they believed the world should be like. A recent Channel 4 programme called “Jesus’s Female Disciples”, raised many questions about the women who followed Jesus. Who, by sitting at his feet and listening to his teaching, acted like disciples. Within the programme, Professors Helen Bond of Edinburgh University and Joan Taylor of King’s College, London, showed how these women disciples have been airbrushed out of church history. One particularly fascinating insight from the programme is what I have called the “Case of the Missing Martha” and is worthy of our sleuthing.
Tracking changes through art and sculpture
One method used to study changes in the role of women through the first five hundred years of the church is through art and sculpture. Some of the best examples come from stone sarcophagi, which were the coffins of rich Christians, many of which are stored in the Vatican Museum in Rome. We can track these changes in belief and thought through how various sarcophagi from the third to the fourth centuries depict the story in John chapter 11, of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
One of the earliest is from about 200 AD and is the Jonah Sarcophagus and shows Jesus pointing towards Lazarus, who is emerging from his tomb wrapped in grave bandages. Martha is standing on Jesus’ left and Mary knelt on his right, and both women are looking at Lazarus, with Jesus’s male disciples behind them. We know that Mary is the kneeling figure because John says she ran to Jesus and fell at his feet. Martha can be recognised by the stola and mantle, which were usual attire for Roman women. Both women, along with the male figures, are the same size as Jesus.
A later fourth-century sarcophagus depicts the same scene, except there is only one woman present, that is Mary, who is kneeling next to Jesus and kissing his hand. All the other figures are men. Martha has disappeared from the story.
In a third fourth-century sarcophagus shows a small, wizened figure bent double in the corner. The details of a veil over her head shows this is a woman, but her features are almost non human. Mary, who is this strange figure, is the same size as a cockerel which has curiously found itself in the scene. What do these three sarcophagi show us? Mary is diminished in both her size and role within the story, to a position equal to the cockerel, and again Martha is missing.
Martha’s pivotal role
A close reading of John chapter 11 shows how proactive and dynamic Martha is in her relationship with Jesus and her pivotal role in the story of the raising of Lazarus. It is she who writes to Jesus that his friend and their brother Lazarus is ill. It is to Martha’s grief that Jesus brings comfort, and not only for the loss of a brother. As two single women, both Martha and Mary were now at the mercy of their nearest male relative. It could mean the loss of their home, money, and status.
Martha then comes out with the most shocking thing she has ever said. “I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (John 11:27 NIV). There is only one other person in the Gospels to call Jesus the Messiah, and that is Simon Peter. I would like to bet that many of you reading this have heard of Peter’s confession of faith, but did you know about Martha’s? I have heard Peter’s confession in many sermons, but never once have I heard Martha’s preached about!
It was not just Mary, her sister, who sat at Jesus’s feet, but Martha would have done so many times. And it was within this context of her relationship with Jesus that she comes out with this momentous statement. Nick Page in The Wrong Messiah, (Hodder and Stoughton, 2011), says of Martha, “She is right up there with Peter, this girl.”
Why did John include Martha’s confession of faith in his Gospel? At the time he was writing it, there were disagreements within the young church as to the role of women. John tells us Martha had an equal understanding of who Jesus was as Peter. The testimony of women was vital, and it was to his women disciples that Jesus first showed himself after the resurrection. John showed that Jesus treated women and men equally, in contrast to the culture of the time and indeed within the church, for many centuries after.
Leaving Bethany is the story of Martha of Bethany written in a novel format. Many people have asked why I wrote it, with one person suggesting I should rewrite it from Lazarus’s point of view as they regard him as the most interesting character in the stories. I beg to differ. From what we read of Martha in the Gospels she is a fascinating woman, and not the flat two-dimensional character as often portrayed.
It is the story of Martha, Mary and these early women disciples that I wanted to tell in Leaving Bethany. In writing Martha’s story in the first person, I have given her a voice after it was taken away from her. Putting her right back in the centre of the story as she was in the beginning.
She is right up there with Peter, this girl.
I have given her a voice after it was taken away from her.
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Susan Sutherland is the author of Leaving Bethany, a historical and Biblical fiction written from the point of view of Martha of Bethany. She is currently working on the sequel, Return to Caesarea, due out winter 2022.